By Bruce Kamerling
When Irving Gill arrived in San Diego in 1893, the Boom of the late 1880’s had already gone bust. In this quiet corner of the country, Gill developed a sensitivity to the raw landscape, unspoiled hills, and the indigenous architecture of the missions. These elements he distilled into one of the few wholly original and modern styles of architecture in America.
Irving John Gill was born in Tully, New York, on April 26, 1870, the son of a farmer. Gill’s older brother, John, became a building contractor and this may have influenced Irving to become an architect. At nineteen, Gill started studying architecture in the office of Ellis G. Hall of Syracuse. The following year, he moved to Chicago and studied under Joseph L. Silsbee, who helped introduce the shingle style into the Middle West. In 1891, he moved to the office of Adler & Sullivan where Frank Lloyd Wright was also working. Louis Sullivan, the “father of modern architecture,” was one of the greatest exponents for an American style of architecture. His teachings influenced Gill to strive for sensible originality rather than repetitive revivalism.
Like so many others, Gill moved to California to improve his health. After a brief partnership with Joseph Falkenham, an architect of Queen Anne style homes, Gill worked on his own until he became the partner of William S. Hebbard in 1897. Hebbard’s style leaned toward English architecture with its use of massive stone and brick construction. Gill’s style began to define itself after the turn of the century when he fell under the spell of the simple plastic shapes of the adobe missions. In 1906, Hebbard and Gill went their separate ways. The following year Gill started a partnership with Frank Mead who had worked in the office of Hebbard and Gill for several years. Mead had a great interest in primitive architectural forms, and had studied the indigenous styles of North America. Although their union only lasted one year, some of Gill’s finest projects were completed with Mead as partner.
On his own again, Gill continued to seek the ultimate refinement of his style. He once wrote “If we, the architects of the West, wish to do great work we must dare to be simple, must have the courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty, must break through convention and get down to fundamental truths.” In this bold and fearless stance lies the key to Gill’s greatness.
About 1914, Gill took as a partner his nephew, Louis, who had worked in his office since 1911. The younger Gill did not bring new ideas into the office, but because he had so well assimilated the architect’s style, Irving felt confident leaving him in charge of the San Diego office while he went to Los Angeles to produce one of the major monuments of modern architecture, the Dodge house (now destroyed). Since Irving was not a businessman, Louis did what he could to keep them solvent but the partnership was not long-lived.
The Spanish Colonial design of the buildings for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego (1915-16) created a trend away from Gill’s simplicity. He gave up his practice in San Diego and found what jobs he could in the Los Angeles area. Returning to San Diego in the late 1920’s, Gill designed a church in Coronado, some municipal buildings for Oceanside, and several schools in association with John Siebert. He moved to Carlsbad in 1929, and one of his very last projects was the chapel and cottages for the Rancho Barona Indian Resettlement near Lakeside. He died in Carlsbad on October 7, 1936.
Most of Gill’s productive years were spent in San Diego, but his influence was widespread through articles by or about him in publications such as The Craftsman, Sunset, and Architectural Record. His office also produced many local architects of the next generation. Along with the large residences and public buildings, he designed neat and sanitary housing for low-income, farm-worker, and Native American families. His idealistic concern for craftsmanship and art, and his humanistic concern for people set his buildings apart from all others.
Even though time and ignorance have taken more than their share of Gill’s work, it is still possible to visit his structures through the camera’s lens and try to imagine them in their original beauty.
FOR FURTHER READING
Ferris, Helen M. “Irving John Gill: San Diego Architect.” The Journal of San Diego History, XVII (Fall, 1971).
Gebhard, David. “Irving Gill.” California Design 1910. Pasadena: California Design Publications, 1974
Gill, Irving. “The Home of the Future: The New Architecture of the West: Small Homes for a Great Country.” The Craftsman, (May, 1916).
McCoy, Esther. Five California Architects. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975.
Photographs are courtesy of Marvin Rand, The Art Galleries of the University of California at Santa Barbara, The San Diego History Center / Title Insurance and Trust Photograph Collection and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.